Diju Davis’ mind works, but his body cannot respond to these commands; he is a paraplegic. Yet, he isn’t entirely dependent on others. At New Delhi’s Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC) where he has been a patient for nine months, Davis, 21, has been empowered to control the ambient conditions, summon help, even turn on the television. Helping him do all these is a prototype of an invention known simply as the blow switch, an electrical switch that responds to breaths of air the same way other switches do to finger pressure.
The inventor of the blow switch is Jayashree Santosh, a professor of biomedical engineering at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). She came up with the blow switch, the idea for which was first voiced by a colleague Sneh Anand, in 2003, and has since been waiting for the process to be commercialized.
The invention itself is a tube connected to a credit card-sized sensor that operates either on battery or power from the mains. The tube fits into the mouth and a user can blow into it to activate or deactivate the sensor. “Subjects may have problems with other parts of their body, but they should be able to blow into the tube,” says Santosh.
According to the World Health Organization, India has a population of 9.6 million that is paralysed, fully or partially. For many reasons, a majority of them are completely dependent. There are several helpful devices such as the chin-controlled wheelchair available abroad, but not in India, says Chitra Kataria, a rehabilitation specialist at ISIC.
Santosh operates out of a 10ft by 10ft office in the IIT campus. Her office is more functional than anything else—four steel filing cabinets, a wooden desk, a phone, a few chairs, a notice board with a class schedule pinned to it, and a window that’s mostly blocked by papers stacked by it. The only personal touch is provided by two photographs of a young girl, presumably her daughter. A professorial-looking woman in her mid-40s, this is someone who belongs in front of a blackboard. “You must continue along these lines,” she tells a student working with her on a project.
In many ways, the lady was made for academia. Santosh was born, and grew up in Kerala. Her brothers thought her studious and she reckons they were about right. “I still enjoy sitting at home and reading and don’t mind being alone,” she says. Santosh went on to study electrical engineering at Thiruvananthapuram, married a classmate, Santosh Nair, and eventually ended up at IIT, Delhi. She’s not comfortable discussing her personal life, except when she is speaking of her 11-year-old daughter Devika. “She teaches me to be a good mother.” Her reticence disappears when she talks about the blow switch.
The reason why the blow switch is still a prototype characterizes the relationship between academia and industry in India. Institutions such as IIT, which are run by the government, file their inventions with the Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer (FITT). The organization is mandated to publicize inventions and get the industry interested. “This (the blow switch) is among the 250-odd inventions registered with us,” says FITT manager K.K. Roy, “but it’s up to industry to take them up.”
Usually, companies pick up four inventions from FIIT every year; the switch’s turn is yet to come. Santosh could approach the HR ministry, however, precedence indicates that the ministry only meets those innovators who bring along manufacturers willing to make and market the product. “The entire problem can be solved if companies come forward to take up the production as part of their corporate social responsibility,” says Santosh.
The professor estimates that the commercial cost of her product could be less than Rs5,000. “It will not be costly,” says Kataria, although another therapist at the centre believes the product “needs to be incorporated with other functionalities such as propelling a wheelchair, or propping up a bed to be truly functional”.
In December last year, five organizations, including the National Institute of Mentally Handicapped, approached Santosh evincing interest in the switch. “It has to be put to commercial production,” says L. Govinda Rao, the institute’s director who’s lobbying the government and wooing companies to do just that. Santosh is hoping that he can.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org